R Ashwin was in the toilet when Hardik Pandya hit a four. Cricketers are known to be superstitious but “how long could I have stayed in there?!” Ashwin laughed. It would have helped if some of the top-order batsmen had stayed longer in the middle, but their technique against swing was always going to be tested by the Duke ball, which kept doing something. Once Virat Kohli fell, after facing just 17 balls in 49 minutes, to Ben Stokes, it was all over. England had won by 35 runs, Stokes — who faces trial for assault charges and, as a result, is out of the next Test — was emotionally exhausted, barely able to mutter to the television cameras, while Kohli talked up his team.
“The fact we didn’t play to our potential at all and were still close in the game says everything about us as a side. If we pull ourselves together and even play 80-85 percent of the cricket we can then it’s going to be a very exciting and competitive series,” Kohli told BBC radio.
It’s too early in a five-Test match series to feel painfully hurt by a loss like this, was how Ashwin put it in the end. It might gnaw at them as time goes on, though. Not because they couldn’t chase down 194 as that was never going to be easy for this team, right now. With not many practice games before the Test series, and their own games not suited to facing swing bowling as yet, they were always going to be over reliant on Kohli. But it was in the third afternoon the game slipped away when Sam Curran played a dreamy knock to pull England to safety.
But there is always some hope. They needed 84 and they had Kohli. Anderson might perhaps fail to swing it. Broad might perhaps be erratic. Stokes might not be in the right headspace with the trial verdict coming in a week’s time. However, one thing was clear: if the England bowlers were at top of their game, the chances of India pulling off something special was pretty slim. Too much depended on one man.
And as it turned out, Kohli hardly faced much in the 49 minutes he spent in the middle. He would invariably take a single early in the over, and watch from the non-striker’s end. It’s another area where the Indian batsmen need to develop their skills. The ability to take singles and rotate strike. They have the tendency to freeze at one end if the ball does a bit. Kohli couldn’t get into any momentum. It was all about pushing for singles and slowly dragging India through. Hope someone stayed with him.
The first dagger
James Anderson, who bowled with great control and purpose through the Test, drove in the first dagger, taking out Dinesh Kartik in the first over of the day. One of those Anderson deliveries: the ball kicks up even as it tails away, catching the bat’s edge on its way. From the other end, Broad not only cut the ball in but got to straighten it as well. The new man, Hardik Pandya, put up a gritty show.
He leaned forward, bat-and-pad close together in defense, and though he doesn’t have a great leave, he managed to get away from the deliveries leaving the off stump. He seemed determined to hang in there.
Just as Hardik broke free with couple of boundaries, Root threw the ball to Stokes. In the first innings, it was against Stokes that Kohli was more careful about the way he moved around the crease. He hadn’t walked across or down too much. He knew he couldn’t do that against Stokes as he is one of those bowlers who can do both: swing and seam the ball. He can change lengths and release positions rather smartly, and almost at will.
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Kohli made the mistake of walking across and Stokes chose the moment to slip in a full nip-backer. Trapped on the move, Kohli couldn’t get bat in the way and fell lbw. From thereon, though Pandya hung on bravely and was even involved in a bit of verbal battle with Stokes, the game, you sensed, had slipped away from India. There were no freebies on offer; no erratic lines or lengths; where were the runs going to come?
With just 40-odd needed, Root gave the ball to his legspinner Adil Rashid, whose inclusion had created quite a divide in this country. But he knew what was asked of him on Saturday afternoon: a timely, well-conceived googly to hoodwink a tailender. He nailed Ishant Sharma and Stokes returned to prise out Pandya, who finally poked a delivery that left him.
Until lunch on third day, it seemed India had covered up their vulnerabilities. Somehow India’s weaknesses were cancelled out by England’s weaknesses. A brittle top order vs vulnerable middle order. India’s slip cordon held up but England’s collapsed. Just as India saw the finish line, a 20-year old kid intervened. Growing up, Sam Curran always had an eye for the big moments in the game. His school coach talks about how he would reserve his best for such occasions: three hundreds in three games against the fancied Harrow, or a 6 for 9 against a team that his school team wanted to beat badly. But this wasn’t a school game. This was a Test but the boy bossed around: first came the wickets when the senior bowlers couldn’t swing the ball, then came the runs when the senior batsmen had given up the ghost. Stirred by a boy-wonder, the veterans found their feet, and England won.